Social networks: the next generation

Star_map We used to build social networks laboriously, by hand, out of slender pieces of paper called business cards, and the occasional phone call. 

Now machines do most of the work.  The network, perhaps the most important form of association outside the family, has finally been automated.

So of course social networking is exploding.  I belong to LinkedIn, and I can’t help noticing that some you have neglected to link with me.  And I belong to Facebook (ditto), and several others (ditto, ditto, ditto).  People!

I send invitations.  I get invitations.  It’s not always clear to me what my return on investment is here, but it’s clear that something is happening and that that something is good. 

But there are some muddles in the models.  CEO Dan Nye recently claimed that LinkedIn would "own" business networking and that it would do so because, among other things,

"people will build one profile for their personal life and another for their professional life"

There are several things wrong with this assertion, but’s here the chief thing.  We will want many more than two networks. 

In the real, non-virtual, electronically unmediated First Life world, we have lots of networks.  If you are a hardworking housewife with a couple of kids, your list might include: childrearing advice, English crime novels, cheap fashion that doesn’t suck, buzz about Oprah and Rachael, anaphylaxis (allergy) management, how to run a soccer team, scrapbooking, Tudor monarchs, cuisine that dials down sugar, salt, and fat, pop culture chatter, and then there are all the residual connections generated by elementary and high school, college and grad school, to save nothing of neighborhoods, cities, states, countries and cultures to which you or your parents once belonged. 

And that’s just a First Life list.  I am just shepherding my new book to publication (out in the fall, God willing), and the proposition here is that all of us have embraced a certain personal multiplicity, that most people are now a crowded house of selves.  Call it the post modern self, less interested in personal consistency and more interesting in consuming as much experience in and of the world has possible.

Multiple selves create multiple networks.  Lots of lots of networks.  What we are going to need is a way to add new networks and swim between them.  And just yesterday, it finally occurred to me that this is what Ning does for us. 

Ning is a site that helps people create and host their own social networks.  When I first wrote about it, what caught my interest was how well it understood revenue sharing, customization, and especially the devotion to simplicity that helped bring Google to greatness. 

I saw that Ning was designed to reflect Marc Andreessen’s belief in plenitude, that "there are no limits to the number of new technologies, companies and industries we can create." But I didn‘t see how well Ping was designed to enable this plenitude. 

Ning is a kind of network of networks (a meta-network, I guess you’d say). You sign up, invite your friends to join you in Ning-space, and then as you join other networks, some of them will link up there was well.  In a sense, the Ning  meta-network works on a respiratory model.  You exhale old friends into each of your new networks, and you inhale new friends therefrom into your Ning network.

Here’s an example.  I noticed that a friend, Charles Frith belongs to something called Plannersphere.  This is a network for planners created by Faris Yakob. (I am not strictly speaking a planner but planners are anthropological in their approach to things so there’s an affinity.)  So I joined.  I will take (exhale) existing friends into Plannersphere, and I will make (inhale) new friends there, who will then  join me in my Ning meta-network.  Multiplicity begets networks.  Networks beget multiplicity.      

Plannersphere will not be my most important network, and it is precisely because Ning diminishes the sign up and maintenance costs that I considered joining.    (And no sooner did I join than I learned, thanks to Justin Kirby, of the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe 2007 to be held in England, "Europe’s first virtual worlds conference."  Interesting, and a very C3 MIT kind of event.  My new network membership has already delivered a return.)

As long as there were just a few networks available, Nye’s logic applied.  One or two winners would take all.  But with the advent of Web 2.0 (and other factors mysterious to me), the number of social networks multiplied and now the game changed entirely.  Now, we were looking at the prospect of spending a little part of each week signing up for the latest network and then deciding which friends we would invite along for the ride. All of this with the uncomfortable feeling, that none of our investment of time and exposure here had really paid a dividend.  (Especially when you invite your friends to yet another network, you can’t help wondering, "Does this make me look like a crackpot?") 

David Bujnowski and I talked about this, and it was clear that, at some point, someone was going to have to redeem us with a network of networks that let us sign up once and deploy this membership many times.  Now respiration could work in earnest.  Now we could free up that small part of the week we spent signing up for the next new thing. 

I noted with interest the arrival of MyLifeBrand.  According to the press release, MyLifeBrand "lets users choose their social networks or services and seamlessly navigate among them.  MyLifeBrand enables users to import multiple networks and their related friends into a browser-like site that wraps communities and services of choise in to one total social experience."  I joined up and had a look and I have to say it was not clear to me MyLifeBrand actually enabled multiple membership…but then I am often puzzled by novelty and slow to seize its opportunities. 

Culture and commerce are tag teaming again. 

Culture has committed to plenitude and multiplicity.  The self and every other kind of corporation is becoming more distributed and less well defined.  Increasingly, we struggle to identify clear boundaries or contents.  Increasingly, we find self and corporation scattered across networks like so many many points of light in a Greek star map (pictured).  Who I am, that is somehow the sum of my membership in all the networks to which I belong.   

Commerce responds with ways of managing our plenitude and multiplicity.  But no sooner have the meta-networks made it easier to manage our multiplicity, it will enable this multiplicity. 

We are still waiting to see what this social networking is "good for."   In the meantime, we are changing at light speed. Wait till we figure out how to use these networks in earnest. 


McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Cloudiness: of selves, groups, networks and ideas.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  January 31, 2007.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Ning: cultural implications of the new social networking.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  February 27, 2007.  here

Ryan, Oliver.  2007.  LinkedIn says it will own business networking.  The Browser, Fortune Magazine.  June 11, 2007.  here.  (Source for the quote from Nye.)

Schaeffer, Jason.  2007.  LinkedIn vs. Facebook.  Jason Schaeffer (v 1.3773). (With thanks for thoughts on illuminating thoughts on the costs of multiple memberships.)   here.

Scherzer, Betsy.  2007.  Your Life Online.  Press release for MyLifeBrand.  June 6, 2007. 

(My Flickr Nugget key word at the moment: London)

10 thoughts on “Social networks: the next generation

  1. steve

    I wonder how much of this online networking and meta-networking is the sole domain of extroverts and exhibitionists. Or at least people who aren’t worried about imposing on others or boring them or whatever. I have enough trouble staying in touch with the people with whom I’m already acquainted–why would I want to multiply that problem a zillion-fold? And if most of those web-mediated links to others aren’t really a problem, because they just sit there inertly and never get used, then why would anyone need them? All of this is by way of wondering whether the entire space isn’t another version of the CB radio fad–fun for a while, but eventually clogged with noise and then exited by all but a small hard-core.

  2. Asi

    multiple selves were always a part of our personalities. years before the social networking sites revolution people view themselves as both different and similar across social roles (e.g., parent, friend, worker, amateur fisherman, football fan etc).

    the 2.0 revolution enabled us to engage with people far beyond our first-life circles and reproduce our selves on a larger scale. However, I’m not sure that Ning is a meta-network. for me it’s more a platform to create / personalise / own your social network. but in it’s essence, it is no difference to the various groups on facebook or communities on myspace.

    Personally I feel that the (still) novelty of this creates a somewhat neurotic dynamics where people are joining new networks at the pace they change their bedsheets. is there any value here?

  3. jens

    the web the way it is now provides a meta-structure that enables you to get in contact with a bunch of people that you like – whose work, taste, consumption profiles etc. etc. you like – and that (therefore) are eventually a lot like you. – the sociological wisdom expressed in the phrase “what you like is what you are like” will become / has become a trusted vehicle to identify kinship and to establish bonds. – also in this sense the world is becoming flat. – also in the ‘real’ world people are more likely to introduce themselves to an artist, author or designer for example when they feel really touched by his work — regardless of distance created by fame or glamor. — and that will eventually call for a newly refined order and for new ways of establishing and protecting privacy… – because perceived kinship can sometimes be a one-sided projection, especially when it is overwritten by personal ambition… and people are increasingly making also bad experiences with this.

    but the saddest downside of leveraging social networking too much into the real world is nicely expressed in the famous quote of the composer jean sibelius:
    “only with bankers you can talk about art. – artists always talk about money.”
    kinship makes the world cozy. contrasts make the world interesting.

  4. jens

    on second thought i might also add that the logic and mechanisms of “what you like is what you are like” as a solid, clear and consciously accepted foundation of social interaction will probably change our world in an unprecedented way. – think of all the kids that grow up with designing their my-space sites… – perception of kinship and creation of bonds will more than ever before be linked to creative self expression and the deciphering of this. – it is just one notch up in our individualized society. and a couple of notches down for the dominance of prefabricated meaning through branding as we know it.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    I’ve been involved in a Ning network for the past couple of months and don’t see enough “meta” in it to do what I want done: somebody give me a place to centralize my access to my Flickr, YouTube, blog, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Netflix, etc., etc., lives. Now I hear that PersonalAggregator will do that. I don’t know, I guess I’m looking for a “one ring to rule them all…” kind of place. I’ll bet Google’s hard at work on this right now.

    But we’re not there yet. And, if we were, would the security issues freak us all out?

  6. Peter

    I once sat down to estimate how many people I have met in my two decades of professional consulting, and, just counting business cards, I easily got to more than 10,000 people. I have lost contact with most of these folks as I and they have moved on. One of the great advantages of Linked-In and similar social networking sites is that they potentially enable us to keep in touch with such people without having to contact them individually at each change of employer or profession. This benefit will only become clear to us with time, as we all move along in life, and are able to track each other’s life movements indirectly, via the blackboard that is Linked-In.

  7. Mark

    Social networks online (described as 2nd life networks above) result in lots of people knowing that lots of other people exist. But is that enough? If these people do not really know each other what real value can come from these networks. I am a member of Ecademy which aims to help you build ‘trusted’ networks of business contacts who, because they are able to engage through clubs and other forums on line, begin to better understand the way each other think and operate.

    It is my experience that only when the 1st and 2nd life meet face to face can the best opportunities of these newly “inhaled” networks be properly realised. Therefore in my opinion, 2nd life networks should be seen as part of your real life. Only when online social networks are seen as an integral part of our real life will the true benefits of these networks be understood. And not just understood by millions of individuals on a ‘life-journey’, but also understood by organisations/brands who understand the value of engaging in ‘right time, right place’ relationships with their audiences.

  8. Faris

    Totally agree with your multiplicity – I called distributed identity but I think we’re in the same place

    The Parks research shows people already tend to use multiple networks – although calling users unfaithful misses the point

    As you point out, different networks have different roles and we can express different parts of ourselves in different places.

    Welcome to the Plannersphere Ning!

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